For Farm Training, Practice Makes Progress

To build homesteading skills, supplement your studies with plenty of practice, and just get started, wherever you are.

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by Bryan Welch
Joel shares advice (and amusement) with a group of fairgoers.

A common question I hear from aspiring farmers and homesteaders is, “Where do I go to learn homesteading skills?” A quick and easy answer: “Attend a MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR.”

I wish it were really that simple. To drill down on the question, I’ll tell my own training story. Each person’s story is different, but threads of commonality exist. Those threads are what we want to tease out.

First of all, I started my farming training early; I grew up on the farm we operate today. To be sure, my mom and dad’s off-farm jobs (school teacher and accountant, respectively) paid for the land, but the farm didn’t become what we’d call a “going concern” until my wife Teresa and I married and returned.

The first two threads are to start early, and to stop worrying about the scale or viability of your farming business. Just get involved. Until my late teen years, I didn’t realize that our farm wasn’t really a business. Oh, we sold some calves at the sale barn, but it never actually made a living. I’m sure it made enough to pay taxes, but not anything close to a salary. Still, it was a great place to grow up, to experiment with different agricultural enterprises, and to develop marketing savvy.

Mom and Dad’s situation didn’t dam­pen their encouragement for us kids to develop our own enterprises. My older brother raised rabbits, and I got my first chickens when I was 10 years old.

Sometimes, I think my attention to the business of farming makes people think I don’t respect non-profitable farms and homesteads. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every enterprise starts from nothing. We’re all on some sort of scale, coming from somewhere and heading somewhere else. If your current somewhere is just a great place to build tree forts, assemble dams in the creek, and plant vegetables, that’s fantastic.

The point is to start something — anything — where you are. You can’t Google experience. And nothing is more valuable than experience. While you’re doing that something, regardless of profit, regardless of scale, you can read, attend seminars, watch videos, and take night classes. I’m a huge believer in doing something practical at the same time I’m doing something academic. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and they usually fit symbiotically.

So, start practicing your homesteading skills. You’ll learn what you enjoy and what you don’t. What you have a knack for and what you don’t. Are you adept at caring for plants, or caring for animals? How do you know where your gifts and heart lie until you play with options?

Sometimes, we get fixated on training from somewhere or someone else. As important as that may be, nothing compares to personal experience. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll start making mistakes, and that’s how you’ll learn to succeed.

My greatest mentor was my dad, whose father (my grandfather) was a charter subscriber to Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming magazine when it first came out in the 1940s. That was a mainstay around our house, so I stand on the big shoulders of its philosophy and worldview. Mom and Dad may not have developed an agricultural “going concern” in their lifetimes, but they created the foundations in thought, practice, and land for Teresa and me to launch. Never apologize for humble beginnings. And never take launchpads for granted.

Because our family had this environmental ethic, we befriended eco-farmers in our area and developed close relationships with hippies. As soon as MOTHER EARTH NEWS started being published, it was also a mainstay in our home, and I remember being mesmerized by the content, even as a teenager. The Plowboy Interview department in the opening pages of MOTHER EARTH NEWS introduced me to Allan Savory, Bill Mollison, Ellie Pruess, A.P. Thomson — all the greats. I didn’t have money for travel, but I could travel vicariously through the pages of these illustrious magazines.

Then came books. One of the most valuable time investments I ever spent was in reading one fall when I wasn’t busy. I was operating a black walnut buying station for Hammons Products Company at the local Southern States dealer. It was a four-week gig, and I had to be there Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Most years, it was fairly busy, but this particular year, the walnuts didn’t produce in our area, and I had only a couple of folks a day come down with a few sacks. But I had agreed to the time and terms, so I brought books to pass the time.

I read Louis Bromfield, Edward H. Faulkner, Sir Albert Howard, Philip S. Callahan, Charles Walters, and, the biggest and my favorite, the 1,000-page The Complete Book of Composting, compiled by the Rodale staff. I underlined, digested, memorized, and baptized myself in those pages. They became the backbone of my presentations as I began communicating our farm methodology. And, of course, I borrowed plenty of ideas to try on our farm. I was now armed with the why as well as the how. That October is still one of the fondest in my memory.

Extremely strapped for money, I could’ve chafed under the poor walnut crop and wasted time sitting on feed sacks in the back doorway of the Southern States store, but instead, I invested that time in reading. This brings me to a third overall thread: You’re responsible for what you know. As long as you think someone else is responsible for your training, your development, or your success, you’ll be stuck where you are. The day you realize you are responsible is the first day of liberated learning and progress.

A fourth thread: associating with like-minded people. Our family friends in the environmental farming and homesteading community were all doing interesting and inspiring things. They weren’t naysayers. Encouragement catapults us to try new things; discouragement shuts down our momentum. Surrounding yourself with competent, supportive people will challenge you to try harder and do better. Invest your time in people who can teach, mentor, and inspire you. Yes, that might mean working free of charge with a farmer you enjoy. Consider it an investment in your farming training.

Group of people planting vegetables in a greenhouse

Early in my career, I joined the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. Trade associations work because they build communities around practice. The folks who lead these organizations are generally the gurus of their trades. All of us need to rub shoulders with the folks who know stuff.

This is my story. Today, we have more access to knowledgeable people than ever. Often, I quip, “I wish I was around when I was young.” We have more information, more seminars, more internships, more conferences. Goodness, we even have YouTube, podcasts, and online learning. Never has information been more accessible.

The problem is that never before have distractions been as common. Think about all the things vying for our time. If you’re going to train to be a winner, you can’t do everything else. You have to pick and choose. What you put your money and time into defines what you value. How badly do you want it?

Lifelong learning is a practice. I’m learning new things every day. I still read voraciously. I still get giddy about spending time with an excellent farmer. Excellence is something you cultivate, just like a garden. As financial guru Dave Ramsey notes, we tend to be successful at what we put our attention on. Ultimately, training to be a successful farmer and building homesteading skills requires experience, information, and relationships. Put some practice in, and you’ll soon be growing the prettiest garden around.